Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 25, 2008
Equus by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Thea Sharrock. Designed by John Napier. Lighting design by David Hersey. Sound design by Gregory Clarke. Movement by Fin Walker. Cast: Richard Griffiths, Daniel Radcliffe, with Anna Camp, Carolyn McCormick, Lorenzo Pisoni, T. Ryder Smith, Graeme Malcolm, Sandra Shipley, Collin Baja, Tyrone A. Jackson, Spencer Liff, Adesola Osakalumi, Marc Spaulding, and Kate Mulgrew.
But the one stripping everything away in the revival of Peter Shaffer's Equus at the Broadhurst isn't the one who's been populating the headlines. Yes, Daniel Radcliffe is making his hotly anticipated Broadway debut as the 17-year-old British boy Alan Strang, who blinds six horses in one frenzied night. And yes, in the climactic scene he wears nothing at all. But focusing on the star of the film adaptations of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books ignores the more captivating magic commanded by Radcliffe's remarkable costar, Richard Griffiths.
The onstage magnetism Griffiths displays will not surprise anyone who saw his epic, heartbreaking turn in The History Boys two years ago. But he built that performance, as a respected but unconventional high-school teacher facing his own extinction, upwards from live fireworks. Here, as the respected but contentious psychiatrist Martin Dysart, who's tasked with diagnosing and treating Alan, he's chosen as his foundation long-spent explosives, but the results are no less fiery.
In every aspect of his Martin, you experience his belief that there is nothing at all left within him. He plods around direct emotion in eggshell-soled shoes, forever subject to the crunch and crackle of his festering marriage. His marrow-deep weariness manifests itself as sighs that travel on every syllable of his every word, as if the effort of articulating his thoughts for others is a lead-plated cross to bear. He is, in every way, an artist sapped of inspiration; when he tells the magistrate (Kate Mulgrew) who presents him Alan's case, "I feel the job is unworthy to fill me," he utterly convinces himself or us.
Griffiths makes it abundantly clear that the distinction between Martin and Alan is less pronounced than the sane might hope. In maintaining Martin's corrosive stoic professionalism, Griffiths also underscores the necessary codicil: that passion untempered by reason is not a preferable danger. Martin's own psychosis has developed from reason untempered by passion, and may have led him to revere earthly rather than religious constructs, but it hasn't drawn him to so revere horses that a perceived transgression in their presence is just cause for destroying them. Griffiths elevates this restraint to a vital character trait.
While this makes Martin's eventual deconstruction of his own motives even more powerful, it also bestows a much-needed contemporary humanity on a role and a work that are still very much locked in the early 1970s in which they were constructed. This scrupulously polished production, directed by Thea Sharrock, choreographed (though the billing is for "movement") by Fin Walker, and designed by John Napier (sets and costumes, as he did originally) and Ted Mather (lights), supports Griffiths's more modern view. But it can't camouflage the dated pop-psychology underpinnings of a play more dependent on sleight-of-hand than grand-scale theatrical illusions.
Alan's God-fearing mother (Carolyn McCormick) and television-fearing printer father (T. Ryder Smith) are hopeless constructs that fill out key plot points more than they do gaps in our understanding of Alan's personal pain. The girl, Jill (Anna Camp), who leads Alan into the temple he then desecrates is vastly underrepresented for such an ostensibly important incarnation of Lucifer. Even the vivid anthropomorphism of the horses, including Alan's Chosen One, Nugget (Lorenzo Pisoni), smacks of stage invention desperately in need of reinvention 35 years later.
The actors Sharrock has chosen are not at fault. Camp brings a vivaciously innocent sexiness to Jill and Pisoni a genuinely equine sensuality to Nugget (and the rider who first captures Alan's fancy); Smith and McCormick attack their roles with all the grim gusto they require, and that you'd expect from these stage veterans. Mulgrew, too, finds a gregarious blend of disgust (with Alan, with Martin, and with herself) and good humor in her mostly thankless role, anchoring the presiding darkness with a few scenes of light.
But none of this proves sufficient to make this Equus as shocking and shattering as the original apparently was. The formless dramaturgy, capped by those avant-garde recollection sequences, looks old hat today, when so many of even the best plays are set primarily or entirely in the far reaches of our own grey matter.
Something else is needed to rejuvenate the work. And for this production, Radcliffe fills that role. At least on posters and TV commercials.
But Radcliffe never progresses beyond that point, even as Alan does. You must believe in Alan's complete possession in each of the flashbacks Martin inspires, that this withdrawn boy would derive spiritual solace from riding nude on a horse, and that that same worship would lead him to gouge out its eyes with a metal spike after proving unable to fulfill his own destiny as a sexual being. Radcliffe is superb throughout at evoking the hazy frustration that defines Alan's everyday existence. But even when his clothes come off, he never reveals the extraordinary - and terrifying - creature you should see beneath.
Radcliffe's deficit is even more noticeable opposite Griffiths, who never falters in supporting his half of the brutal comparisons Shaffer establishes between the two. The imbalance between the two hurts this Equus. But it doesn't diminish Radcliffe as an actor of enormous promise, if one in need of more seasoning to stand shoulder to shoulder with the stage's great stars, such as Griffiths. After all, how often in the real world do the tricks of an up-and-coming wizard match those of expert sorcerer?